Death as Performance Art

It was a rainy night, and my wife and I were on our way to Vail to celebrate our tenth wedding anniversary. I crested a hilly curve. and on the other side was chaos. A small pickup truck had skidded on the wet road into the guard rail and rolled several times. Emergency vehicles hadn’t arrived on the scene, and our help was needed. Camping gear, food, and assorted pieces of a planned vacation were scattered all over the highway getting soaked. We got out of the car, and a man who was directing traffic asked me if we had flares or a first aid kit. We had both, so my wife grabbed the first aid kit, and I helped the man light the flares. A young woman lay on the other side of the guard rail motionless. Four or five people were attending to her. The driver was wild-eyed, wandering around his truck and trying to get to his girlfriend. His nose was broken, and blood seeped from a head wound onto his white cowboy shirt. He was not coherent and didn’t understand that the people who were frantically trying to keep the woman alive needed him out of the way. Three of us kept redirecting him away from the guard rail, trying to avoid a fight which he seemed determined to initiate. I felt like a picador in the bull ring trying to avoid getting hurt while getting an enraged creature into position.

A female passenger from one of the stopped cars put herself between the injured driver and us, talking softly to him, and he settled down a little. He stared at her as if trying to figure out if she was his girlfriend or just a stranger. He shook his head trying to comprehend the scence. Blood sprayed off of him and onto my jacket. A state trooper showed up, and the driver became much more compliant. Then the ambulance arrived and we, the unwilling audience to this pavement drama, went on about our lives. I read in the paper two days later that the woman died. It rained most of the week, making our vacation less than ideal, but we still had a good time.

Certain experiences and activities make living more intense and somehow more real. Birth and death certainly qualify as such occasions. But we Americans are comfortably removed from these major life events. In fact. most of us are insulated from life period. We get all of our food prepackaged, and births and deaths occur in hospitals out of sight. The killing and processing of the meat in our food supply are hidden away. I think our distance from the intense experiences of life promotes thrill seeking behavior. People living in combat zones in Africa and the Middle East do not engage in bungee jumping or zip lining, for example. Part of PTSD for many soldiers is trying to recreate the intense feelings generated during firefights. It might explain the rising popularity of tattooing and piercing as well. Some people claim an addiction to body art. I think the pain makes them feel more alive.

Most Americans do not die on the street or suddenly in their beds. Exhibit A is that the majority of Medicare funds spent on individuals occurs during the last two years of their lives. No quick deaths for them. Just a long slow downward spiral. In hospitals, they refer to it as circling the drain. It’s a pretty good metaphor although I prefer the image of the spiral wishing well. In either case, most of my friends and loved ones who have died took about two years to accomplish the feat. It doesn’t seem to matter how strong one’s faith is or how prepared one is for death. It’s two years of in and out of hospitals for various complications until the person finally lets go.

It reminds me of performance art in that it involves many people: friends, family and strangers. And it requires interaction among all of the participants about a subject that most people avoid. Frequent trips to the ER force us to face our mortality. My father-in-law is currently engaged in the process of dying. One of the hard parts of the process for family and friends is seeing the person we have known for so long slowly, intermittently disappear. It’s not like his wife, whose dementia took her away long before her body quit. For him, it’s more like a roller coaster. Each hill gets smaller and slower. He was a gifted amateur magician for most of his life, and he entertained the nurse yesterday by making one of his pills disappear.  She later found it in his bed and tried to make him take it. But the confusion brought on by his kidney infection had returned, and he kept insisting that he had already swallowed it. It took ten minutes for her to convince him to take it. I think the only reason she succeeded was that she was cute, and he always turned on the charm for the ladies.

He will let go of life eventually. Today, tomorrow, or next year. But eventually, he will let go and take his last journey. Every person’s death performance has its own timetable. My wife once had a friend named Rose who became ill suddenly and died after only three weeks. During a family/ friend confab in her hospital room, Rose suddenly sat up and yelled at everyone. “Be quiet,” she said, “somebody’s trying to die over here.” It was not only a reasonable request but a profound insight. Dying takes work. Generally speaking, it doesn’t go easily or quickly. Murderers often find out to their dismay that their victims refuse to cooperate. Death is seldom instantaneous. States have the same problem with executions. They have to do it quickly and painlessly, and it’s not to be easy to do. Every method has problems with either speed or pain. Turns out Mssr. Guillotine actually knew what he was doing even though his method seems horrific.

I have a small brass bell that hangs from my car mirror. It belonged to my late mother-in-law, and I adjusted it so that it only rings sporadically. Some bumps and turns make it ring, but not many. Most of the time, it sways silently like the love birds in the Alfred Hitchcock movie. Its tiny unpredictable ring reminds me that my own death performance is out there somewhere. Maybe over the crest of the next hill. Or maybe in a bed that hasn’t been made yet. Wherever it is, I hope I will be ready. I’ve always preferred a good short to an opera.